Top 9: Emotionally Devastating Films


Films that are the equivalent of a one-two punch to the gut.

9.   Irreversible

Told in reverse-chronological order, the film follows a fateful night in the life of Parisian couple Alex (Monica Bellucci) and Marcus (Vincent Cassel). Irreversible is a conceptual film that hits incredibly hard once an unspeakable act is committed. The free-wheeling couple are forever changed in the matter of minutes: 9 infamous minutes to be exact.

  1. Jungfrukällan aka The Virgin Spring

A family in 14th century Sweden is confronted with ultimate loss when their virginal adolescent daughter is brutally raped and murdered. Filmed in chilling black and white in true Bergman style, the beautiful scenery gives the film a macabre tinge which does not let up till the very end. Bergman deftly captures the ubiquitous tragedy in his allegory of innocence lost.

  1. Leaving Las Vegas

Ben, (Nicholas Cage, in an Oscar winning performance) an out-of-work screenwriter and recent divorcee, packs his belongings and heads to Las Vegas. He is not going there to try his luck but rather to drink himself to death. This version of Las Vegas is not a city tailored for frivolous adventures but rather a place where dreams go to die. Ben’s determination to go through with his plan, even after meeting lovely sex worker Sera, (Elisabeth Shue) is what makes Leaving Las Vegas so relentlessly depressing.

  1. Elephant Man

John Merrick (John Hurt), an ostracized man who was born with severe growths all over his body, is forced into becoming part of a freak show in Victorian-era Britain. A doctor (Anthony Hopkins) takes it upon himself to integrate Merrick into society, but as Merrick acknowledges, people are afraid of what they do not understand. The film is based on the real life of Joseph Merrick:  a man striving for agency in a cold and shallow world.

  1. Dancer in the Dark

Selma (Bjork) is an Eastern European woman who migrated to the United States who works in a factory  while trying to hide the fact that she is going blind due to a degenerative genetic eye disease. She is saving all the money she has to finance her son’s surgery so he will not suffer the same fate, but when she trusts the wrong people all is immediately lost. The scene in which she confronts the traitor is one of the most harrowing scenes of despicable human behavior caught on screen.

  1. Requiem for a Dream

Four interconnected people succumb to drug addiction which eats away at their lives. Requiem for a Dream is a visceral experience, using its stylistic devices not to alienate viewers from the unadulterated drug experience, but rather to pull them closer to the darkness and the madness. The film shies away from sentimentalism and platitudes and is the ultimate anti-drug movie.

  1. Breaking the Waves

Lars von Trier has a tendency to focus on innocent (verging on infantile) women who go through hell, and never has it been more poignant as in the case of Bess: (Emily Watson) a devout, profoundly naïve woman whose husband Jan (Stellan Skarsgard) is paralyzed from the neck down in a freak accident. Bess’s unrelenting loyalty and kindness, especially towards her husband, marks her downfall.

  1. Hotaru no haka aka Grave of the Fireflies

An anti-war film like no other, two young siblings try to survive in war-torn Japan during World War 2. The newly orphaned pair only have themselves to count on as things go from bad to worse. The animated feature showcases the horrors of war on those that are left behind in a shattered society; and the magnificent, detailed animation makes watching the film all the more devastating.

  1. Lilja 4-ever

Abandoned by her mother 16 year old Estonian Lilja (Oksana Akinshina) has nowhere to turn. Her only confidant is a younger boy who also leads a disparaging life.  Lilja is very resourceful and smart, but she can only endure so much. She thinks she found a ticket out when her new love Andrej promises a better life for her in Sweden, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Lilja 4-ever is incredibly difficult to watch, with its grimness and incessant displays of human evil, but there is no doubt that it is also a very important film.

Written by Eli Lewy who also blogs at